Good intentions: Women on the podium
Good intentions: Women on the podium
02 APRIL 2019 7:19 AM

Presenting a more gender-balanced, interesting, dynamic roster of speakers at industry conferences is limited only by habit. As an industry, isn’t it time for hoteliers to take the lead on advancing gender equality, especially on the podium?

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22.”

In his book, author Joseph Heller commented on the fate of WWII pilots, but he could have been talking about female speakers in the hospitality industry today. Women are not being afforded the opportunity to speak at the podium during industry conferences and events because they aren’t visible.

Unfortunately, women aren’t visible, in part, because they aren’t on the podium.

The podium is important because it grants visibility and builds reputation for rising executives. It is one way that people are recognized and build personal brand for their expertise. This visibility leads to connections and opportunity. If women are not visible, their careers cannot advance competitively.

The hotel industry has been working on improving presence on the podium for women. Hotel investment conferences have improved from 12.6% women to 15% overall women speakers between 2016 and 2018 according to “Women in the Hospitality Industry 2019,”a report from the Castell Project and American Hotel & Lodging Educational Foundation.

For comparison to the wider economy, Bizzabo, a leading provider of event management tools, studied events with at least 60,000 speakers across 23 countries and all industries over five years to assess the status of women on the podium. Gains at hotel investment conferences are in line with the 2% gain Bizzabo reports for women speakers overall from 2016 to 2018. However, the 85% male speaker rate at hotel investment conferences pairs unfavorably with the 65% rate for the U.S. overall as reported in Bizzabo’s 2018 “Gender Diversity & Inclusion in Events Report.” The report shows that 65% of U.S. speakers were male across many fields, with all-male panels (“manels”) still common.

Even these skewed figures cover more nuanced statistics showing that women are seen on the podium at social gatherings, fundraisers and galas rather than at conventions and conferences or meetings and networking events. But visibility at industry conferences and meetings is most important for professional women.

As the statistics indicate, gaining visibility and personal brand from the podium at a competitive equitable level has been a challenge for women.

Conference speakers often are sourced from referral networks. That network of people who appear on multiple conference podiums—those who have a “regular” spot on the conference circuit and recommendations from sponsors and collegial recommendations—is predominantly male. Organizers, advisory board members and sponsors understandably recommend friends and those they have seen as speakers before. It takes imagination and a small measure of risk to recommend women.

There also is a perception issue. Recommending a woman is different and memorable. Recommending the regular roster of men is ongoing. This means that well-intentioned people may comfortably support multiple men while feeling that they are doing extraordinarily well by recommending one woman.

The challenge is particularly wide in the sectors represented at investment conferences. According to Bizzabo, speakers among venture capital and private equity interests are 82% men while management consulting speakers are 75% male overall. These figures are more in line with hotel investment conferences.

Good intentions matter, and there are good intentions across the hotel industry about shifting this paradigm. Translating those good intentions into a more equitable industry includes:

Initiative: Castell Project data shows that only 11% of attendees in finance and 12% of attendees who are managers/owners/developers at investment conferences are women. Attending conferences and building a network through attendance is important to gaining visibility and ultimately to speaking. Women at the director, VP and SVP level should be asking to attend regularly. And companies can participate by bringing a balanced roster.

Initiative: Only 5.4% of CEOs and 6.5% of presidents attending these conferences are women. Conferences are more eager to present CEOs and presidents, particularly on the main stage. However, panels, which showcase a wider range of titles, are even more skewed than the main stage. Bluntly, panels are more interesting if they are diversified, and there is a large population of knowledgeable women at the levels who could present on panels. It is in the best interest of both the conferences and their speakers to include more women.

Resources: There is not a shortage of talented, knowledgeable female speakers. Castell Project offers the WSH list, a service providing short, curated lists of qualified female speakers to hospitality industry conferences. AAHOA has a well-developed speakers’ bureau that includes multiple women. AHLA Women in Lodging and their Forward program are a link to women speakers. Sponsors, including Hilton, Marriott International and InterContiental Hotels Group, are well-known for their strong bench of talented, knowledgeable, female executives.

Presenting a more gender-balanced, interesting, dynamic roster of speakers is limited only by habit. As an industry, isn’t it time for hoteliers to take the lead on advancing gender equality? A relatively easy step we all can take is to allow and encourage our female leaders to shine on the podium. Let’s beat the catch-22.

Peggy Berg is director of the Castell Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing gender diversity within the hospitality industry. The group hosts annual advanced training programs designed to help women reach the next level of career advancement. The Castell Project also maintains and provides the WSH (Women Speakers in Hospitality) List for industry events and conducts surveys and studies to track industry gender advancement.

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